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Zirconium and hafnium

December 19, 2017

Zirconium and hafnium are corrosion-resistant metals that are widely used in the chemical and nuclear industries. Most zirconium is consumed in the form of the main ore mineral zircon (ZrSiO4, or as zirconium oxide or other zirconium chemicals. Zirconium and hafnium are both refractory lithophile elements that have nearly identical charge, ionic radii, and ionic potentials. As a result, their geochemical behavior is generally similar. Both elements are classified as incompatible because they have physical and crystallochemical properties that exclude them from the crystal lattices of most rock-forming minerals. Zircon and another, less common, ore mineral, baddeleyite (ZrO2), form primarily as accessory minerals in igneous rocks. The presence and abundance of these ore minerals in igneous rocks are largely controlled by the element concentrations in the magma source and by the processes of melt generation and evolution. The world’s largest primary deposits of zirconium and hafnium are associated with alkaline igneous rocks, and, in one locality on the Kola Peninsula of Murmanskaya Oblast, Russia, baddeleyite is recovered as a byproduct of apatite and magnetite mining. Otherwise, there are few primary igneous deposits of zirconium- and hafnium-bearing minerals with economic value at present. The main ore deposits worldwide are heavy-mineral sands produced by the weathering and erosion of preexisting rocks and the concentration of zircon and other economically important heavy minerals, such as ilmenite and rutile (for titanium), chromite (for chromium), and monazite (for rare-earth elements) in sedimentary systems, particularly in coastal environments. In coastal deposits, heavy-mineral enrichment occurs where sediment is repeatedly reworked by wind, waves, currents, and tidal processes. The resulting heavy-mineral-sand deposits, called placers or paleoplacers, preferentially form at relatively low latitudes on passive continental margins and supply 100 percent of the world’s zircon. Zircon makes up a relatively small percentage of the economic heavy minerals in most deposits and is produced primarily as a byproduct of heavy-mineral-sand mining for titanium minerals.

From 2003 to 2012, world zirconium mineral concentrates production increased by more than 40 percent, and Australia and South Africa were the leading producers. Global consumption of zirconium mineral concentrates generally increased during the same time period, largely as a result of increased demand in developing economies in Asia and the Middle East. Global demand weakened in 2012, causing a decrease in world production of zirconium mineral concentrates and delaying the development of several new mining projects. Global consumption is expected to increase in the future, however, as demand from the ceramics, chemicals, and metals industries increases (driven by renewed growth in developing economies) and demand for zirconium and hafnium metal increases (driven by the construction and operation of new nuclear powerplants).

The behaviors of zirconium and hafnium in the environment are very similar to one another in that most zirconium- and hafnium-bearing minerals have limited solubility and reactivity. Anthropogenic sources of zirconium, and likely hafnium, are from industrial zirconium-containing byproducts and emissions from the processing of sponge zirconium, and exposure to the general population from these sources is small. Zirconium and hafnium are likely not essential to human health and generally are considered to be of low toxicity to humans. The main exposure risks are associated with industrial inhalation and dermal exposure. Because of the low solubility of zirconium and hafnium, ecological health concerns in the aquatic environment and in soils are minimal. Heavy-mineral-sand mining may lead to increased erosion rates when the mining is managed improperly. In addition, surface mining requires removal of the overlying organic soil layer and produces waste material that includes tailings and slimes. The soil removal and mining activity disturbs the surrounding ecosystem and alters the character of the landscape. Dry mineral separation processes create high amounts of airborne dust, whereas wet mineral separation processes do not. In operations that restore the landscape to pre-mining conditions, the volume of waste and the impact on the landscape may be relatively temporary.

Publication Year 2017
Title Zirconium and hafnium
DOI 10.3133/pp1802V
Authors James V. Jones, Nadine M. Piatak, George M. Bedinger
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Professional Paper
Series Number 1802
Index ID pp1802V
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Geology Minerals; Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center